Textile collections must improve to boost clothing recycling, says WRAP

Used and second hand clothingA new report sets out how the fashion and textiles industry can increase its use of recycled fibres and move to a more circular business model.

The report, produced by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), is the first to look at the economic factors influencing ‘fibre to fibre’ recycling – turning used and discarded fabrics back into new clothes.

WRAP estimates that around £140-million worth of clothing is sent to landfill every year in the UK alone, in the context of a growing demand for new clothes: in 2016, around 1.13 million tonnes of clothing was purchased, up 200,000 tonnes from 2012. The fashion industry remains very linear, working on a ‘take-make-dispose’ model with new, cheaply-made and cheaply-sold items put to market every season.

The total carbon footprint of clothing bought in the UK has gone up since 2012, when WRAP launched its Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP), a voluntary agreement aiming to reduce the carbon, waste and water footprint of clothing by 15 per cent by 2020. In 2016, 26.2 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) were produced from clothing in use the UK – that’s looking across a garment’s life cycle, from production and transport to washing, drying and disposal.

As WRAP’s Director Peter Maddox points out, “only housing, transport and food have greater environmental impacts than clothing”. The main culprit for these environmental impacts is the extraction of new resources for clothing – around nine million tonnes of CO2e every year comes from fibre production from agriculture or polymer extrusion (for synthetic fabrics).

Maddox continued: “With rising global demand we urgently need to secure new sources of materials and find new markets for used clothing. Fibre to fibre recycling offers a potential solution – but one that has not been properly investigated.

“Our report is the first to explain the economics of fibre to fibre recycling and will help investors, business-developers and the recycling sector navigate this relatively young, uncharted field. New processes and entrants onto the market should be monitored to inform the business case for future investment, but we already see potential for post-consumer textiles to become part of the UK’s fashion scene.”

Potential for development

The report highlights that cotton and polyester are the materials with the most potential for fibre to fibre recycling. These are the most commonly used materials in clothing and household textiles, and with demand for cotton growing – and a five-million tonne deficit in raw cotton predicted by 2020 – the picture looks positive for the recycled fibre market.

However, significant barriers will need to be overcome to help the industry increase its uptake of recycled fibres. One barrier is the lack of information about new recycling processes for fibres: the report identifies chemical recycling processes (dissolving fabrics in chemicals and respinning the resulting pulp into yarn) as potentially more financially viable than mechanical recycling techniques (such as shredding), but chemical techniques are still in their early stages.

Textiles being hand sorted for recycling
Textiles being hand sorted for recycling

Moreover, for these techniques to take off, WRAP’s report states that there need to be significant improvements in the collection and sorting of post-consumer textiles in order to meet demands for high-quality feedstock. The costs of improving collection and sorting could potentially be funded through an extended producer responsibility (EPR) regime for textiles, which would see producers invest in fibre to fibre recycling.

In order to make post-consumer fibre an attractive and financially viable prospect for processors, demand from brands and retailers also needs to stimulated, along with a more positive perception of recycled materials from consumers.

Alan Wheeler, Director of the Textile Recycling Association, expressed his support for the research, saying: ““The current markets for mechanically recycled fibres are limited, and to be able to collect more clothing that is currently being disposed of we must find new markets for recycled fibres or risk flooding these markets and potentially having to dispose of low value recycling grade textiles. Clearly this cannot happen.

“This research will help us to obtain a greater understanding of the market sensitivities, particularly of the fledgling chemical recycling processes, and how used textile collectors and processors may have to adapt their practices going forward to maximise value and recyclability of used textiles.”

Growing concerns

WRAP’s report comes as the clothing industry is facing increasing scrutiny, with an ongoing inquiry from Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) looking at what leading fashion retailers are doing to improve the environmental impact of their clothing.

An interim report from the EAC recently shone a light on the retailers that are most and least engaged with improving their sustainability record. Primark, Tesco, ASOS and Marks and Spencer are all highlighted as taking positive steps, for instance through using sustainable cotton and offering take back schemes for their products. These retailers are also all signed up to the SCAP 2020 targets. However, many retailers have opted out of the voluntary targets, with JD Sports, TK Maxx, Amazon UK, Boohoo and Missguided all named and shamed.

The findings of WRAP’s report will be used to inform SCAP 2020 activities. The full report, ‘Fibre to fibre recycling: An economic & financial sustainability assessment’, can be read on the WRAP website.

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